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Caution, cancellations mark Ash Wednesday in time of virus

The Pope kissed at least one child and made a point to shake hands with the faithful; most clergy were refraining from kissing Francis’ ring as they normally would.
Credit: AP
Pope Francis salutes faithful in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican before leaving after his weekly general audience, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

ROME, Italy — VATICAN CITY--Pope Francis has celebrated the Ash Wednesday ritual kicking off the Catholic Church's Lenten season, despite fears of coronavirus.

The Associated Press says other Masses in northern Italy were canceled.

Francis and a long line of priests, bishops and cardinals processed through Rome's Aventine hill into the 5th century Santa Sabina basilica for the late afternoon Mass. Neither the priests nor the faithful were wearing masks, but Rome has largely been spared Italy's outbreak so far.

Francis kissed at least one child as he looped through the square in his popemobile and made a point to shake hands with the faithful sitting in the front row. Usually, he only waves. 

Credit: AP
Pope Francis kisses a child in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican before leaving after his weekly general audience, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

He also greeted prelates with a handshake at the beginning and end of the gathering, but it appeared most clergy were refraining from kissing Francis’ ring or embracing him, as they normally would do.

In the Philippines — Asia's only majority Roman Catholic country — priests sprinkled ashes on the heads of the faithful rather than making the mark of the cross on their foreheads to avoid physical contact.

Credit: AP
Catholic devotees have ash sprinkled on their heads during Ash Wednesday rites Feb. 26, 2020 in Paranaque, metropolitan Manila, Philippines. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines has recommended sprinkling ash on the head of devotees instead of using it to mark foreheads with a cross to avoid physical contact and fight the spread of the new coronavirus in the Lenten period in places of worship. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

According to the Associated Press, last month the bishops recommended that Catholics receive the Eucharistic host by the hand instead of the mouth and avoid holding hands in prayer during Masses as precautions amid the viral scare.

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